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  #31  
Old Jul 11th 2010, 04:42 AM
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Default Re: Literal isn’t Lazy

It is pretty amusing to see how precisely the unscientific aspects of natural language manifest itself and causes confusion in a discussion that tries to prove its scientific nature.
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Old Jul 11th 2010, 05:39 AM
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Default Re: Literal isn’t Lazy

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Originally Posted by dilettante View Post
If we're to look at the word "atheism", then the commonly accepted definition (at least in the US) is, roughly, one who believes God(s) do(es) not exist; the dictionary definition is either "a disbelief in the existence of deity" or "the doctrine that there is no deity"
This is the standard accepted definition among philosophers.

Wiki has the following definition (excerpt):

Quote:
Atheism, in a broad sense, is the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities.
Notice how only in the broad sense, Atheism subsumes agnosticism (a belief such that the existence of god cannot be determined) and anti-theism (which is either a rejection of religious beliefs, or a rejection of god), but in the narrower sense, it stands on its own, independent of the two.

Stanford dictionary of philosophy states (excerpt):

Quote:
‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.
Note how it says "negation" and not "opposite" or "against". There are very nuanced differences between (denial/believe in the non-exitence), and (lack of belief), and (against the belief). I am using brackets to make things clear here- Those are three different things which make claims about different realms of human interactions.

Antitheism are primarily used in the context of talking about organized religions to mean the opposition of organized religion, where one voices his apathy towards having a religious belief and/or voices his opposition towards groups of people having such belief. Antitheism is most commonly found in religious discussions where one tries to convey how theism is dangerous and destructive for the society as a whole. Some notiable antitheists (such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins) are also atheists, but even these people themselves have made clear distinctions in their own writings of the two (e.g. Dawkin's the god delusion made a list of standard definitions as I am partially doing here).

Another type of use of the word Antitheism involves god being characterized or questioned as either not omnipotent (so by Averroës's paradox can be seen as antitheist), or not ominiscient, or not ominibenovelent (dystheism). In this latter case, antitheism is equivalent with misotheism.

Antitheism does not have a very prominent place in the discussion of religious philosophies because it deals primarily with social attitudes and moral values. It does not make specific claims about doxastic relations (belief relations) or epistemologícal status (knowledge). However, it can be consistent to say atheists are antitheist and vice versa in some contexts, because they certainly overlap one another- a person who opposes organized religion (religious beliefs) may as well deny the existence of god. And those who deny his existence may very well oppose others' belief in such a god. These are not mutually exclusive. Likewise for agnostics and antitheists.

Some related notions: Pantheism view the universe as either created by some supreme being, or is equated with that supreme being. It is not necessary that this supreme being is anthropomorphic or be identified to some person. Patheists generally do not believe in a omnipresent god who governs the universe after its creation. Moral issues therefore are independent of god. Theists on the other hand, believes not only in a creater, but also a god who is responsible for the unfolding events between human beings (and all of his creations ofc), which entails god is ultimately responsible for right or wrong. Again, these are by no means mutually exclusive in terms of definition- a pantheist could possibly be an atheist, depending on how broadly the defitions used, as per Stanford dictionary of philosophy:

Quote:
pantheism can be ontologically indistinguishable from atheism. Such a pantheism would be belief in nothing beyond the physical universe, but associated with emotions of wonder and awe similar to those that we find in religious belief.
(Atheism vs agnosticism continued)
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Old Jul 11th 2010, 06:53 AM
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Default Re: Literal isn’t Lazy

This is all very interesting. It would seem to me that for any two people to communicate effectively, they would first have to come to an agreement on a definition of a word. I suppose one could argue all day long about the "common" definition of the word "atheism" vs. the "philosophical" definition, but I'm not sure that argument would get either one any closer to an understanding or respect of the others' true position.
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Old Jul 11th 2010, 07:02 AM
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The chief distinctions between atheism and agnosticism rests on the status of knowledge, or as some philosophers further points out, the moral consequences of belief with knowledge and belief without (e.g. Clifford's Ethics of Belief has a story of the ship sailing to the New World, and Huxley's Agnosticism) (The_Drunk_Guy: you can look em up easily yourself, I certainly am not just touting names and literatures here- I just don't want to change the subject all the time trying to explain everything). The central claim being- regardless of your level of sincerety in what you believe, some which may or may not be self-serving, belief without certainty in knowledge is always immoral, and therefore we cannot be either theists or atheists, as both of these makes a claim on not just one's belief, but a belief that necessarily rests on knowledge. Only with justified belief, or belief with full knowledge, can we make religious statements such as "there is a god", or "there is no god" that are moral, since our belief in god often entail exhortations or imperatives relating to other people. (And if one can always keep one's religious belief completely private, then the moral argument is irrelevant- except for when one is harmed by one's own false beliefs).

There is a related but independent second point here- for some people such as the empircists (like Hume, or Mill), or later the Modernists and Logical Positivists, justified belief is significant not based on moral grounds, but based on the principles in which statements' truth value can be derived. Both theism and atheism suffer the same problem in that statements such as "there is a god", or "there is no god" cannot be verified scientifically. They are in a sense, nonsense, this is another ground for someone to be agnostic.

Let me elaborate the first point a little futher and then move onto the second. The definition of agnosticism (excerpt):

Quote:
Agnosticism is the view that the truth value of certain claims—especially claims about the existence or non-existence of any deity, but also other religious and metaphysical claims—is unknown or unknowable... agnosticism is a stance about the similarities or differences between belief and knowledge, rather than about any specific claim or belief.
Stanford dictionary of philosophy makes the following distinctions between agnosticism and atheism (excerpt):

Quote:
To give a correct and fully general account of the nature of justified belief is difficult and inevitably controversial... nevertheless for the present purpose of distinguishing atheism from agnosticism it is good enough to treat knowledge as at least justified true belief... Later we shall look at the question of whether we should say that an atheist is someone who claims to know that there is no God or someone who at any rate believes this.
So an atheist is either- someone who claims to know there is no god, or who does not know, but nevertheless believes the non-existence of a god. An agnostic lacks such belief. This is consistent with the definition provided in my previous post.

The above does not seem to be a wholly satisfying or clear enough distinction, but it does make justified beleif, or belief with knowledge, a key criteria that sets agnostics apart from atheists. It continues with an example:

Quote:
In the light of these considerations let us consider the appropriateness or otherwise of someone (call him ‘Philo’) describing himself as a theist, atheist or agnostic. I would suggest that if Philo estimates the various plausibilities to be such that on the evidence before him the probability of theism comes out near to one he should describe himself as a theist and if it comes out near zero he should call himself an atheist, and if it comes out somewhere in the middle he should call himself an agnostic. There are no strict rules about this classification because the borderlines are vague....

Here it has been assumed that Philo regards ‘God exists’ (vagueness apart) as an intelligible sentence to which truth or falsity can be ascribed. If he thinks that the conception of deity is so obscure or so permissive that no truth value can be ascribed to ‘God exists’, perhaps he should extend the notion of ‘atheist’ to cover his position also. “Agnostic’ might suggest that there is something to be agnostic about.

(In the above discussion I have used the argument from the fine tuning as an example of something in the grey area between science and metaphysics. There may be other plausible arguments for theism that Philo could consider, and together with further applications of the Bayesian formula the plausibility might be increased in every case. Nevertheless it still might be quite small even in toto. I am assuming that all the arguments are from plausibility considerations and so can reinforce one another. Of course if the arguments fail because of faults in pure logic, then they do not reinforce one another. The conjunction of several logically bad arguments is indeed no better than one logically bad argument.

Even if various philosophers or theologians use the word ‘God’ in different ways are such that their words are quite unintelligible then they can hardly be said to defend theism. As I have suggested, a logical positivist such as the young A. J. Ayer (Ayer 1936) would have at least been less misleading if he called himself an atheist rather than an agnostic. He neither believes nor disbelieves in God, like the agnostic, but he does not think, as I take it that someone who called himself an agnostic would, that God either exists or does not exist but he does not know which.)
Again, the demonstrations by the author above seems unsatisfactory- The only reason I could attribute to this is precisely because natural language is not scientific and not precise enough. A statement such as "There is a god" or a statement such as "There is no god" is a matter of probability when justified belief, aka, knowledge, is involved in the evaluation of such statements- As the author suggests, we ought to apply methods of verification, external to the natural languages we speak, which contrary to natural languages, are scientific in nature, in order to determine the meaning or truths of those statements. There are further problems in applying scientific methods to prove the non-existence of things, which is why statements of existence is either positively proved, or matters of probabily when positive proof is absent.

The external methods of verification mentioned by the author and me, such as Bayesian/Confirmation theory, or the Demarcation problem mostly attributed to Positivists such as Ayer, will be extensively discussed in another thread which I intend to follow up in the near future.

As we can see, the discussion of Atheism vs Agnosticism touches upon several philosophical issues. On the one hand, it deals with morality, which is phasing out in philosophical discussions of the modern and postmodern era. On the other hand, it deals with philosophy of language, the way in which we evaluate truth or falsity of statements in natural language, statements which are intrisically very imprecise, ambiguous and by no means suitable for communicating scientific knowledge.

There are however, pragmatic and practical grounds for making a clear distinction between atheism and agnosticism, which will be continued in my next post.
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Old Jul 11th 2010, 08:58 AM
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This is all very interesting. It would seem to me that for any two people to communicate effectively, they would first have to come to an agreement on a definition of a word. I suppose one could argue all day long about the "common" definition of the word "atheism" vs. the "philosophical" definition, but I'm not sure that argument would get either one any closer to an understanding or respect of the others' true position.

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Old Jul 11th 2010, 06:05 PM
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There are however, pragmatic and practical grounds for making a clear distinction between atheism and agnosticism, which will be continued in my next post.
I was in the process of posting a reply to the above this morning, then there was a server outage- I lost all that I have written.

I am going to see if I can write it all up all over again.
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Old Jul 11th 2010, 07:20 PM
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Originally Posted by Lily View Post
This is all very interesting. It would seem to me that for any two people to communicate effectively, they would first have to come to an agreement on a definition of a word. I suppose one could argue all day long about the "common" definition of the word "atheism" vs. the "philosophical" definition, but I'm not sure that argument would get either one any closer to an understanding or respect of the others' true position.
It is important indeed to agree on definitions when communicating. However, the next question would be "who's definition shall we go by?". Well, in philosophical discussions, often there are standardly accepted definitions available on subjects which people have established- precisely because others before us have gone through the same process as we are about to, and we do not need to reinvent the wheel all over again, to try to come up with new definitions from scratch.

However, and without appealing to authority, let us simply ask- why should we use the "common" definition (in Lily's words), if there is one, above the "philosophical" definition? This begs the question- What is the "common" definition if it is not the philosophical one when involved in a philosophical discussion about religion?

I am by no means a Sophist, and I am not interested in vacuous rhetorics. So I will simply say that there is probabily none- unless one strongly believes that one's own personal definition, is conventionally, widly, and popularly accepted by everybody else in the world. When one is not knowledgable about the issue she speaks of, one often believe that to be true, that she really could make a claim on the definition of a pre-existing word with a pre-existing definition because of her own ingenuity, there just might be a chance where she outshines all the thousands of years of her forerunners and overwrites them. Unfortunatly, the self-righteous "common" definition usually don't outshine its forerunners, and have a very short lifespan when serious people are involved, which is why people need to study and have some basic understandings about the topics in which they talk about.

I have so far demonstrated the overlaps of the definitions of the terms involved, but there are certain key basis for their distinction nevertheless- so for example, Antitheism differs from atheism in that it is an opposition to the belief of a god in some social context addressing topics related to organized religion, or opposition of god (questioning/denying the key definitions which constitutes god), whilest atheism is the explicit denial of god's existence, or a belief of his non-existence, both of which runs into the problem that there cannot be positive proofs of non-existence, and therefore atheism is a belief not based on knowledge alone, or certainly not based on knowledge which are verifiable via scientific methods. This epistemological problem is what distinguishes atheism from agnosticism- not because people who claim to be agnostic wish to appear sophiscated- but rather, some makes the distinction based on moral grounds (like Clifford), some held onto their integrity as scientists and modern philosophers- there just couldn't be a justified belief either way.

The way in which we convey these distinctions with our language is also intricate, and worth looking into. I have mentioned in the earlier posts-(denial/believe in the non-exitence), (lack of belief), (against the belief), are three different things. If it is not entirely clear at this point, I will give examples to distinguish them.

Making a statement such as "There is no unicorn in the world" is the denial/ believe in the non-existence of unicorns- an "a-unicornist", if I may exploit our very primitive "common" language for a moment. The prerequisite of this statement being true is that I know/have positive proof that there are no unicorns. Clearly I do not have a justified belief when making such statements. Now if you replace "unicorn" with "god", you have atheism.

"Either there are unicorns/is the unicorn, or there are no unicorns/is no unicorn", is the lack of belief in the existence of unicorns (Margot: Kind of like saying, per Grice, "I don't believe in existence of unicorns, but if there are some unicorns which I am not aware of somewhere, fuck it"). The person making the statement can be said to be an "ag-unicornist". He does not know nor can he pass verdict with his own knowledge, affirmative or otherwise on the subject of the existence of unicorns. Or, suppose someone is not even aware of what a unicorn is (say, he is from the Amazons or Tibet), and hears the above statement (or its negation), he obviously cannot decide either way- but he can still say "either X or Y", or "Not X, or if Y, etc", X being affirmative of the unicorn's existence, and Y being the negation of unicorn's existence. Now if you replace "unicorn" with "god", you have agnosticism.

"I oppose the belief in unicorns/You should never believe in a unicorn", and "I am against unicorns (presupposing that they exist already)", are "anti-unicornist". Against the belief of X, or against X. If you replace "unicorn" with "god", you have antitheism.

Different terms are used differently, in fact, defined differently by philosophers who came to pass, the "philosophical definition" in Lily's words- for precisely the reason that we do not want to confuse ourselves in relevant discussions due to their commonalities. There are certainly overlaps in religious concepts, but when all three (atheism, agnosticism, antitheism), or all two (atheism, agnosticism) are involved in a discussion at the same time, then their overlaps must take a backseat, and their differences be accentuated. This is not because we want to look like smart asses, it is because we want to avoid confusion! The same thing could be said about a discussion about the differences between modern conservativism vs neoliberalism, or communism vs socialism, or catholicism vs protestantism. Nobody wants to argue whether sugar is an ingredient when talking about the differences between coke and pepsi. It would be a futile and stupid effort based on misconceptions of the topic.

I mean, this is why even within agnosticism and atheism, there are strong vs weak, and explicit vs implicit. The distinctions become important when certain subjects are invloved, I won't go into the minute details as the links are already provided. The point remains, and I think it should be fairly clear by now, philosophical discussions assume established terms and definition unless you have a reason to ignore them. But then the burden of proof is on the one who ignores the established definitions. To flout them and to expect everybody else to abide by one's own personal definitions, is intentionally misleading if not outright demonstrating one's own ignorance about the subject matter in which she is talking about.
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Old Jul 11th 2010, 08:54 PM
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The point remains, and I think it should be fairly clear by now, philosophical discussions assume established terms and definition unless you have a reason to ignore them. But then the burden of proof is on the one who ignores the established definitions. To flout them and to expect everybody else to abide by one's own personal definitions, is intentionally misleading if not outright demonstrating one's own ignorance about the subject matter in which she is talking about.
I should also note, that there are certain merits and places for "common" definitions as in the sense of some mental image which is gradually and cumulatively established over the course of a dialogue and utilized for expedience in communication. This is also known as Stalnaker's "Common Ground", which in part (technically and specifically, the discourse context), is a term used to describe certain temperorily established understanding between the interlocutors about certain concepts or entites that are being talked about. The prerequisite for something being "established" between the interlocutors is that it must be agreed upon either explicitly or implictly by all the participants of the discussion/dialogue. There must be knowledge by all parties regarding this agreement, or sufficient speech act/linguistic phenomenon that indicate such agreement. If there are no such agreements about a certain subject/definition/information (suppose there is an objection about a certain definition by one party), then there the specific information does not enter the common ground. In this case, there is no "common" definition of a term such as atheism, when one objects the other's personal definitions in an exchange about religious beliefs, either online or in a face to face conversation.

Some concepts make sole use of the common ground (specifically, the discourse context) that is established throughout a conversational discourse- for example, If I were to tell you a story about my nephew, how she is stubborn and combative but utmost silly, then you would have to go with my descriptions because you do not know my nephew at all. The concept of my nephew is "common" only because you relied and accepted my descriptions.

But some concepts do not rely on pure descriptions by one speaker, they have prior, established definitions. Suppose we are two car mechanics discussing how to repair an engine- we don't start from scratch, making up our own definitions about what an engine is, what it does, or what are its constructions and so on. We come together with some common understandings about the car engine which we are trying to repair, and discuss what we think its problems might be based on that understanding. Philosophical discussions about pre-existing terms should always begin like this, instead of beginning as if one is discussing about one's own nephew who the other person is completely unaware of. To do so, would be like car mechanics arguing to each other about whether an engine should hold a cup of tea, walk your dog, or push a car forward while consuming Vaseline along its way.
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Old Jul 12th 2010, 08:50 PM
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People are always the variable, words aren't. That's my argument. Prove to me why words should be variable. Show me where that is effective.
I just found this little gem hiding on the first page of the thread. It explains a lot.

While I certainly will assert that words (like people) are always variable, I most certainly wouldn't dream of pretending that this is efficient or effective for anything except variety itself. I think it is just in the nature of these things themselves (people and words) that they are variable.

Now if you are asserting that words ought not to be variable, that's another issue entirely, but on the question of whether words are, or are not, actually variable, I don't think there is any doubt that they in fact are quite variable, malleable, flexible and prone to morph-like behaviors. Whether or not this is a good thing or a bad thing is yet another issue as well.

(Indeed, to judge whether any given thing is a "good or bad thing" requires that we initially define the moral compass or measuring scale to be used and that, more often than not, is even more challenging than the initial question itself! )

As for scientific precision, I think that's impossible to achieve using written words alone. Words, by definition, are symbols that represent other things. You have used the example of "moose", but that is only the word-symbol that represents a specific type of large mammal - the word itself is not an actual moose. Likewise with "atheism", that is only a word-symbol that represents an idea or social construct - it is not a thing in itself (other than as a word-symbol).

And symbols, by definition, will often admit of alternative interpretations. How can one be certain that one is reading the 'correct' interpretation of any given symbol? (since one sees/hears only the 'word-symbol' or 'word-sound') that represents a moose, not a moose itself).

And if words really do have some intrinsic or fundamental meaning specific to each word, how come we have such oddities as "leading" being the word used in the art of typography to precisely define the size of the space between two lines of type? Please keep in mind of course that the word (originally) specifically referred to the layers of actual strips of lead being used for the spacing in the ancient art of manual printing (Gutenburg style).

That is to say, if the meaning of a word is intrinsic to itself, the meaning of "leading" ought to pertain to the use of lead, not the digital use of spacing on a webpage design (for example).

I certainly don't have a problem with words behaving oddly or having anachronistic origins. Indeed, I think that is what gives them character.

Btw, the term "boy" used to mean something entirely different than what we use that word for nowadays - a male child. That's a relatively modern application of that particular word (of no known origin!). Same is true of "girl".

Generally speaking, I find the history of the changing meanings of words over time to be very interesting. If words must be read with scientific precision, then I'm afraid that we will need a law against the use of the English language itself. As I've argued in other threads previously, the English language originates as a bastard language - which won out over time against Latin and French, which are both better suited for scientific precision.
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Old Jul 12th 2010, 08:54 PM
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Not having a history with any of you, nor not having a clue as to what detritus I may be wading into, I would submit that words, like all human emotions-based communication, are infinitely pliable ( gooey ).

Rather than reiterate what others have said, I will simply leave it at this -
A picture is worth a thousand words, but a word is also worth a thousand pictures.


I agree completely. It is the infinite pliability (gooeyness?) of words that gives them their only charm.
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